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Surveillance Playground at Clytigation

If you like absurdity and technology mixed in with your dance and served alongside portions of antiquity and current events, let me introduce you to Michelle Ellsworth. Ellsworth returned to On the Boards last week with Clytigation: States of Exception, a cycle of works that combine an ongoing fascination with Clytemnestra (Ellsworth and Clytemnestra were last here with 2012’s Phone Homer) with the surveillance anxieties of a post-9/11 world. Clytigation #3 took place in OtB’s Studio Theater, and made a funny, peculiar, and wholly engrossing experience for an intimate audience, March 12-14. It’s hard not to be won over by phrases like “over-the-counter counter-terrorism protocols.”

Michelle Ellsworth's Clytigation #3 Photo by Satchel Spencer
Michelle Ellsworth’s Clytigation #3 from Clytigation: States of Exception
Photo by Satchel Spencer

The room was a playground of images and inventions. Two 4’X4’X7’ boxes were the main focal point, connected to each other by tubes of various sizes. One box lacked a fourth wall, so that you could see its interior. Cameras and projectors pointed at the walls of the boxes, most of these walls ready to become screens for video, both live and recorded. Other objects, poised for audience participation, were stationed around the boxes to control the film projections: a stationary bike, a typewriter, and a coin-operated contraption. A garbage-can-sized invention off in one corner held another screen, operated by a lever. In another corner, a phone—you could go talk to someone at any point. Freshly made pancakes rounded out the sensory environment; not often can the audience smell and taste the performance. (Surprisingly, this was not the first time I’d seen breakfast made in performance, but definitely the only time I’ve gotten to partake.)


After Ellsworth’s voice gave a quick, slightly quizzical introduction, dancer Jadd Tank entered the open box through one of the tubes, or “portals.” Wearing a wooden box with the air of a medieval torture device, he followed Ellsworth’s ongoing instructions of what to do, disassembling his box, making himself into a table, then sending the whole thing back through the tubes. This scenario formed the basis of the work, with Tank following Ellsworth’s directives, taking costumes and objects as they came through precisely numbered portals. Part of the fun was hearing Ellsworth describe what he was going to do before he did it: in portal number so-and-so, you’ll find a little outfit (usually a dress). Tank followed each command without question, giving anyone who cares to plenty of social commentary to sift through: it was a woman’s voice directing a man and what he does with his body. The box interior acted as a green screen, so that Tank could be projected into any number of absurd scenarios. The audience could watch this version of the performance on two different screens, so even if they couldn’t see the flesh and blood dancer, they could see him projected onto other environments.


The ever-changing green screen projections and the no-nonsense tone of Ellsworth’s voice lent the experience a dreamlike flavor—a lucid dream, perhaps, because you were in control of some of your actions. Or it felt like riding the waves of someone’s thought process, where free association and whim create a world unbound by logic, or space, or time. In-jokes from both pop culture and dance culture were sprinkled throughout. Tank became Nintendo’s Mario, hitting his head against boxes for coins. He got beamed up, Star Trek-style. He became Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. He put on “postmodern dance clothes” and was projected into a perfect stereotype of postmodern dance (“please engage the floor”). He got thrown into Balanchine’s Apollo (“and pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée”). Tank also became Frieda Kahlo’s eyebrow, a statue on the south wall of the Acropolis (more Greek atmosphere), and a baguette on a bakery counter.

Dancer Jadd Tank in Michelle Ellsworth's Clytigation #3 from Clytigation: States of Exception Photo by Satchel Spencer
Dancer Jadd Tank in Michelle Ellsworth’s Clytigation #3 from Clytigation: States of Exception
Photo by Satchel Spencer

The act of surveillance permeated Clytigation #3, but its surface-level whimsy made it something to laugh at rather than question. And yet, for all Ellsworth’s seemingly harmless directives, it was still a power dynamic of (gentle, bordering on benign) coercion. Some of Tank’s situations—hanging upside-down from a rope, slamming his body into walls in an effort to comply with a direction to “use the space” in a dance—looked downright uncomfortable. In a game, it’s the moment where you wonder who’s really in charge, or who’s having fun anymore. When a disembodied voice starts directing your every move, should you really play along?


So how did Clytemnestra come into all this? She didn’t until later on, at least not obviously. (Maybe it was more evident if you saw Phone Homer.) But about two thirds of the way through, Ellsworth emerged from a portal into Tank’s cell and without preamble launched into a brisk retelling of the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that cyclical tale of family murders ending in an unprecedented twelve-man jury trial for murder (voilà “litigation”). Ellsworth spoke breathlessly fast at first, not making an effort to speak up—quite different from her earlier directives. You felt like you were trying to catch up with her. A stack of stick-on puppets of gods and mortals helped clarify the action, even though they fell off her dress about the same rate she stuck them on.


The work came to an abrupt close when Ellsworth, still telling her story with pithy commentary, directed Tank to build her into a chair. This chair was another ingenious contraption of confinement, like the boxes themselves. Ellsworth folded her body into the body of the chair, and Tank assembled the rest of it around her, complete with a little window that open or shut on her face (again, a pinch of medieval torture design). And that was that. “There’s no closure,” she said. “Have some pancakes; I’m just right here.”


Curiosity is always a driving force behind creative work, but Ellsworth’s Clytigation featured some unusual questions, showing why-nots and what-ifs in all their glory. What if we put a dancer in a box? What if we project a dancer on a box? What if we have Claudia La Rocco on the phone? Unlike most shows, the audience got to indulge their own what-ifs, too. What if I view it from over here? What if I go talk to Claudia La Rocco? What if I push this button? What if I peddle the stationary bike backward? (Answer: The film runs backwards.) At the end, emboldened by the whimsy of what they just saw, the audience took it upon themselves to explore, and that’s when the room really became a playground. It was a chatty, casual atmosphere, with audience members talking with Ellsworth, and with each other, sharing discoveries and anecdotes. Audience camaraderie has rarely worked so well, or so organically.


Such a multi-media performance piece takes a varied team of makers. Ellsworth herself is the diversely talented core of the work, but it would be unfair not to credit Bruce Miller for designing and building the set, or Satchel Spencer and Michael Theodore for programming the surrounding objects. The Clytigation cycle also continues online with—definitely worth checking out.

Michelle Ellsworth’s Clytigation #3 from Clytigation: States of Exception ran March  12-14, 2015, at On the Boards. Visit here for more information about Michelle Ellsworth, and here for more information about On the Boards’ programming.